Mrs K is a film of many firsts for Malaysian director Ho Yuhang.
It is his first action genre film, his first commercial venture, and the first time he is directing acclaimed actors like Simon Yam and Faizal Hussein.
“It is also the first time I ever experienced a standing ovation at (the showing of) one of my films! It happened in Italy, and I was shocked!” Ho said during an interview in Petaling Jaya recently.
After doing the rounds on the international film festival circuit the past year and getting rave reviews everywhere, Mrs K began its theatrical run in Malaysia last Thursday.
The movie stars veteran martial arts actress Kara Wai as the titular character, alongside Yam, Faizal, Chinese rocker Wu Bai, and newcomer Siow Li Xuan.
Wai plays Mrs K, a seemingly ordinary housewife living a comfortable life with her husband (Wu Bai), a hospital doctor, and their daughter (Li Xuan). However, she harbours a deadly past, and her skills as an expert markswoman and martial artist are exposed when she is forced to fend off a couple of robbers.
Things start to go south for her when a stranger turns up at her house-party and starts asking awkward questions about her past. Then, a greater nemesis named Scarface (Yam) kidnaps her daughter, leaving Mrs K with the biggest challenge of her life – saving her daughter and dealing with unfinished business from her criminal past.
Why, why, tell me Wai
Ho is best known for more dramatic and artistic feature films such as debut feature Min (2003), 2006’s Rain Dogs (the first Malaysian film to enter the Venice Film Festival), and At The End Of Daybreak, which received the Netpac Award at the Locarno Film Festival.
It was on At The End Of Daybreak that the Petaling Jaya-born director first worked with Wai. According to him, that film brought Wai back into the limelight after a lull in her career.
One of the most respected actresses in the industry, she was best known for her roles in classic Shaw Brothers movies, particularly in My Young Auntie (1982), for which she was awarded the Best Actress Award in the first ever Hong Kong Film Awards.
“When I was looking for someone for the mother role in At The End Of Daybreak, I saw her by chance in Infernal Affairs II, and I thought she might be the right person for the part,” he said.
The film won Wai the Best Actress Award for the second time at the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards in 2009 as well as a Golden Horse award plus five other Best Actress honours.
“After the last film, I wanted to work with her again. She is a big action star, and my producer and I thought, if we didn’t shoot an action film with her, we would regret it!” Ho recalled.
“And she told us we better shoot it fast, because she was already 51 at the time. So I said I’d write a story for her! I also thought it would be interesting to write an action movie for a woman like her.”
No ordinary cast
As for Simon Yam and Faizal Hussein, they were both actors whom Ho had always wanted to work with but never got the chance to.
“Faizal is one of my favourite local actors and I always wanted to work with him,” he said. “I told him there would not be much dialogue. He doesn’t play the good guy, but he is not evil either. And he was very interested in the character.”
Faizal, one of the most respected and popular actors in Malaysia, said that something about the script just captivated him from the start.
“Usually, when I read a script, I would read for a while, then put it down to do something else before coming back to it. But when I read this one, I just couldn’t put it down … I had to finish it!” said the 50-year-old actor.
Ho also didn’t want a seasoned actress for the role of the daughter, so he went to schools to search for budding talents.
“I saw hundreds of kids, but didn’t find anyone I liked. Then a friend came to me and said he saw this girl dancing and thought she was quite interesting. Then we met at a café, and I thought she was unique, because out of so many girls she was the only one who challenged me and asked me questions!” he said of Li Xuan.
“Because she has a dance background, I had a hunch that she would be sensitive to rhythm, which is very important when shooting an action film, and she can handle the choreography.”
Li Xuan, who also used to be a ballroom dancer, said she was sure she would get the role right after that first meeting with Ho.
“The way he described the role felt like he was describing me!” said the 15-year-old, who had to go through two months of extensive training in martial arts and wirework before shooting.
Lights! Camera! Action action action!
Although Ho is familiar with the action genre, making an action film is a different ballgame altogether.
He closely studied the way these films were made and learnt how certain scenes were shot. So when he met Adam Chan, the action choreographer, he already had some ideas about what he wanted in his film.
“When you shoot in Hong Kong, the director would shoot the dramatic scenes, then hand over the action scenes to the choreographer to run free with them.
“But I didn’t do that – I wanted to know how he wanted to shoot it, the camera angles and so on. I worked with him for some time just to make sure we were on the same page.”
Ho wanted a grittier, more realistic style of fighting.
“We had a term for it – nothing above the belt. So no Van Damme helicopter kicks, and more brutal, street fighting kind of style,” he said.
Shooting action may be somewhat new for Ho, but Wai is in her element in this genre, and Ho was amazed by just how well she handled it despite her age.
“She’s crazy! She said that if she could help it, she didn’t want to use a double. She’s over 50, but she proved to us that she had better moves than the doubles!” he said.
“She spent three months before the shoot with a personal trainer to get into shape for the role.”
Despite comparisons to films like Liam Neeson’s Taken, Ho insists that Mrs K has more in common with old school Western films in the vein of The Unforgiven or The Man With No Name.
“I work with a detailed background on what happened before, and what these characters’ history is like together. It’s more like a Western, like The Unforgiven, where they all have a history together.”
Mrs K is currently showing in cinemas nationwide. Go to the GSC website for showtimes.